Cultural Fusion: Moorish Influence in Spain

 

One of my professors at UPO describes Spain as an encrucijada, a crossroads where cultural influences from the Mediterranean, Africa, and Europe collide. To me, one of the most interesting influences is that of the Islamic Conquest  (711-1492) of what is today Spain. This history actually inspired my senior thesis project, which examines the relationship between Muslim integration in Europe and Middle East foreign policy (I may or may not have opened up my proposal to read for fun the other day. I really miss my political science classes, y’all). It fascinates me that such a nearly purely Catholic (albeit nominally for many people) country was once a flourishing Muslim empire, and one in which the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) coexisted in peace.

Map of the Islamic Empire (Source: Google Images)

 

Andalucía, the region where I’m living, was the center of the Moorish empire called al-Andalus and was the last region to fall to the Christians. Many of Andalucía’s major cities boast stunning old architecture from the Conquest era, including many alcázares, Moorish royal palaces with detailed tiling and expansive Arab gardens. Córdoba, the center of al-Andalus, is home to la Mezquita-Catedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been both a mosque and a cathedral throughout history. The Torre del Oro in Sevilla is what remains of the Moorish forts, and la Giralda, the tower attached to the Catedral de Sevilla, was once a watch tower.

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La Giralda at the Catedral de Sevilla

Today, the Muslim presence in Spain is much smaller. Muslim immigrants accounted for 2.3% of the Spanish population in 2010, while they made up 7.5% of the French population, the largest in Western Europe (Pew Research Center). When los Reyes Católicos (Catholic Kings) conquered and unified Spain in the late 15th Century, they expelled both the Jewish and Muslim populations, using religious homogeneity to unify and more easily govern the regions that they were piecing into one modern state. Perhaps in part because the Muslim population is so small, I haven’t observed major prejudice against Islam in Spain. For example, when we watch the news in my host home and see the latest developments on ISIS or the civil war in Syria, my host mom says, ¡Qué barbaridad! (how barbaric), but she recognizes the difference between extremists exploiting a religion and the religion itself.

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Muslim Population in Europe (Source: Pew Research Center)

Moorish influence in today’s Spain is more subtle; you have to know your history to recognize it in Spanish customs. Being a good host is extremely important in Spain, something at least in part influenced by the strong tradition of Arab hospitality that I’ve heard about from my family in Egypt. The alzahares, blossoming orange trees that line the streets, especially in Andalucía, were brought here by the Moors. Flamenco music and dance has both Arab and gypsy roots.

Another huge Moorish influence is that one-third of the Spanish language has Arabic roots. Pretty much any Spanish word that starts with al- comes from Arabic. Since it’s part of my ancestry and simply because it looks and sounds beautiful, Arabic is high on my list of priority languages to learn. In the meantime, I enjoy discovering little hints of Arabic in Spanish. Some of my favorite Spanish words derived from Arabic include azúcar (sugar), ajedrez (chess), zócalo (plaza), and ojalá (I hope that, God-willing).

To me, the most beautiful thing about culture is that it’s never homogeneous. The unique history of every land and every people molds the contemporary culture of a territory or group. And I cannot wait to keep discovering the origins of the linguistic and cultural intricacies of Spain.

And the best part of Moorish influence in Spain? Why, the tea, of course 🙂

-Steph

Source: Pew Research Center. 2011. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population.” <http://www.pewforum.org/2011/01/27/future-of-the-global-muslim-population-regional-europe/&gt;

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